Sermon for Pentecost 23 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of the nice things about both the college and the seminary I attended was that we always seemed to have relatively impressive people come and give public lectures. Occasionally I was able to endear myself sufficiently to the people in charge that I got to assist in transporting these VIPs from place to place and even to entertain them during their down-time. For the most part, these speakers didn’t have much time for anything but the most cursory pleasantries, and I couldn’t blame them. They had come to give a talk to a full lecture hall, and I was just the lowly undergraduate or seminarian they’d been stuck with.

This was not always the case, however, and I was particularly impressed with one speaker who came to the seminary during my middler year. I don’t know how I got to be Desmond Tutu’s escort, especially considering my size (granted, I am much larger than he is), but it was an opportunity I would have been crazy to pass up.

In any event, it ended up being one of my more frustrating tasks during my time at seminary. As I struggled to get him from point-A to point-B around the seminary’s campus and on the streets of Manhattan, always staying uncomfortably close to him, he was constantly distracted by people who recognized him, and we always ended up arriving late to our destination. You see, everyone who approached him had his own story or problem or prayer request, and never once did the elderly archbishop say “I have to be on my way to stay on schedule.” He heard everyone out, he always had something appropriate to say, and it was clear that he was paying attention and that he truly cared about each and every person who approached him.

Too often we think God is less like this and more like the aloof VIPs. Too often we say, “God’s got more important things to worry about than my little problem.” We sometimes think of God as the “big-picture guy” who is more interested in the full lecture hall than the curious fellow on the street. But, the truth is really quite the opposite.

Consider the story of blind Bartimaeus. Jesus had been on his way to Jerusalem for several chapters. He’d been on his way to the site of the biggest show of his career, the largest lecture hall on earth with his last lecture. He had been traveling inexorably to his fate, death on the cross. In fact, after this morning’s Gospel, the very next thing we read in Mark is that Jesus has arrived, he’s got his donkey and he’s entering Jerusalem to die.

But what does Jesus say when he learns that Bartimaeus is calling out for him? “Sorry, but I have to go die for the sins of the world now.”? No. He says “call him here.” We are told that there was a large crowd surrounding Jesus, and even amidst the busy-ness and noise of that great procession, he hears the faint cry of the poor blind man, and he gave that Bartimaeus his sight.

This is tremendously good news for all of us. We need never think that our problems are too small to trouble God about them. We need never worry that we’re taking up Jesus’ precious time when we go to him in prayer.

That’s the good news, but here is the challenge which accompanies it: “Go ye and do likewise.” You see, each of us is on his or her own journey to Jerusalem. Each of us is, if we are following the commandment of our Lord, walking the way of the cross. Bartimaeus figured that out without having to be told. Jesus simply says “Go, your faith has made you well”, but Bartimaeus does him one better. “Immediately,” Mark tells us, “he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” He immediately understood what took the disciples so long to grasp, namely that the proper response to Jesus’ healing, saving work was to follow, living a life of sacrificial service to mirror Christ’s own.

Let us, then, follow Christ, seeing opportunities to serve in small ways neither as distractions nor nuisances, but as the fortuitous prospects that they are. Perhaps, like blind Bartimaeus, we need to be given eyes to see such opportunities, but God will grant that vision if we only ask Him.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 22 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There are several volumes to which I generally turn in order to gain a more fulsome understanding of the Sunday readings, and one of these volumes had the following to say about the Old Testament lesson: These verses have been the inspiration for some of the greatest sermons ever written. These are not comforting words, and needless to say, this will not be one of the greatest sermons ever written.

It is exceedingly hard to know how to approach the prophet Isaiah’s words, for they summarize more poignantly the whole mystery of our redemption than perhaps any other passage in the Old Testament. Perhaps these words benefit from Handel setting them to magnificent music, but it is hard to see how they would benefit from me opining about them for ten minutes.

Perhaps a little history will help, though, or I should say a little historiography, which is the history of how history itself has been interpreted. Over the course of centuries, people have tended to hold what is called a “deuteronomicview of history”, so-called because the writer of Deuteronomy, who probably also wrote Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, seemed to hold something like this view. Such a view generally holds that there is a neat correlation between good and evil acts, and divine reward and punishment. Do nice things and God will be nice to you; do bad things and God will do bad things to you. This is a helpful way to interpret history if you’re doing well, but no so much if you yourself are suffering. Indeed, the assumption that this is how history unfolds has led far too many people to utter the popular lament “what have I done to deserve this?” and to really believe that they must have done something horrible, even if they didn’t.

By the time we get to the 6th Century before Christ, when today’s Old Testament lesson was written, such a view of history was found to be clearly lacking. The best and brightest Jews had been taken by King Nebuchadnezzar into exile in Babylon, leaving the poorest to live in the wreckage of Jerusalem. Deporting and scattering the leading citizens of defeated nations was a standard tactic in those days, and usually the deportees didn’t have that hard a time of it in their new location. The people were not enslaved, nor were they subject to forced military conscription; they were simply removed to a more neutral location so as not to incite rebellion in their homeland. Thus, the tactic had not caused too much pain and grief to deportees from other peoples defeated by the Babylonians and Assyrians and other major empires of the day.

But this was not so for the Jews, for the land had not only been a useful means of security and livelihood for them. The Jews believed, and they were quite right, that the land was a gift from God. So to have that gift revoked, would have made a number of people believe that they must have done something awful indeed to deserve it.

The God-given, inspired insight of the prophet was that this is not how the judgment of God works. “All we like sheep have gone astray,” he says, “we have turned everyone to his own way.” But God is not in the business of meting out particular punishments for particular sins. Rather it is “the man of sorrows” God-incarnate Christ himself, who was “despised and rejected of men” who “hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”. Christ, we are told “bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

This does not mean that everything is peachy under the sun. Suffering is indeed ubiquitous because of our condition, because we still sadly live in a sin-sick world. It is not my particular sin which causes me to suffer, nor your particular trespass that causes you to experience a world of pain, but we encounter the dreadful reality nonetheless.

Walt Whitman is certainly not a thinker to whom I would normally make recourse, but he sometimes got it right, and he recognized the reality of the ubiquitous, indiscriminate suffering he saw. He wrote:

I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame;
I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men, at anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done;
I see, in low life, the mother misused by her children, dying, neglected, gaunt, desperate;
I see the wife misused by her husband–I see the treacherous seducer of young women;
I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love, attempted to be hid–I see these sights on the earth;
I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny–I see martyrs and prisoners;
I observe a famine at sea–I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill’d, to preserve the lives of the rest;
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;
All these–All the meanness and agony without end, I sitting, look out upon,
See, hear, and am silent.

There is indeed much suffering in the world, and many have suffered in ways that I cannot imagine. Many suffer, not because they did anything to deserve it, not because God is punishing them, but because of harsh reality of original sin. Even so, there is exceedingly good news in the sacrifice of the suffering servant; there is remarkable hope thanks to our Lord, the man of sorrow. For we can be assured that the pain we may come to experience in this life is not a punishment, and that even the most intense sorrow is fleeting when seen in the context of eternity.

We are given the promise not only of eternal life, but of new life. “The righteous one,” Isaiah says, “my servant, shall make many righteous.” We are not only assured salvation, but given a means of achieving saintliness. We too may come to experience suffering, but thanks be to God, that we, like Christ, can offer up both our pain and our pleasure, both our sorrow and our joy, to become ourselves servants of the Gospel. As the hymnwriter, John Bowring put it, “Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure, by the cross are sanctified; peace is there that knows no measure, joys that through all time abide.” May we then all come to appreciate our own lives, our own joys and sorrows, not as rewards and punishments, neither as meaningless phenomena, but as realities which can find purpose and meaning in the light of the cross.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 20 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The nature of marriage (on which this week’s Old Testament lesson and Gospel focus) serves as an important model for all Christians, whether married or single. In fact, the shape which the scripture says God intends for marriage is not only a model, but it is a sign and symbol of God’s grace. That is to say that the grace of marriage is a visible, tangible expression of God’s grace for all people.

We learn from the Old Testament reading that the bond of marriage actually goes beyond a relationship of mutual responsibility and interdependence. These may be the fruits of a good marriage, but the essential bond between a couple committed to a lifelong relationship is something even more profound. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This language indicates something even more profound than mutual support and love. It suggests a total recasting of identity. Marriage is not something two people share as if it were a possession; it is a sacrament possessed by God himself which profoundly transforms those who enter into it, such that on some level they become a new creation, a different person, “one flesh”.

Then we learn in the Gospel that on some level, marriage is indissoluble. Here it gets very touchy. I mentioned a few weeks ago that the lectionary gives us texts we might not choose to think about or preach on, and Jesus’ discussion of divorce, considering the reality of marriage in our society and even among our number, is perhaps more frightening for me to preach about than any other issue. I have a friend who has been a priest for decades who once told me “maybe you should just avoid talking about three things from the pulpit- divorce, abortion, and gay marriage. As tempting as that might be, it seems irresponsible considering the lessons we heard this morning. To ignore the Gospel because of its difficult would show a tremendous amount of cowardice, and it wouldn’t be fair to any of you to just leave it hanging there because of my own trepidation. So, here goes…

“They are no longer two, but one flesh,” Jesus says. “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Actually, our contemporary translation misses the point a bit in its attempt to use inclusive language, because the older translations make it clear that the distinction is between God’s actions and human interference: “what God hath put together, let no man put asunder.” Underneath this is the implication that a human attempt to break apart a divine institution is doomed to failure.

Certainly this is a point on which we might find some conflict between Jesus’ own expectations and our experience in the world of sinful people and dreadful realities. There are certainly situations in which one party seems to be more-or-less blameless in divorcing his or her spouse, and for which a faithful analysis of the teaching of scripture says as much, such as certain situations when there is infidelity or abuse.

But in many cases, because of original sin, it seems that we are forced to choose between two less-than-ideal choices: remain in a marriage which is unhealthy and shows no hope of attaining health, potentially bringing harm to the couple and their children, or else dissolve something that God sacramentally established. It’s a catch-22. That’s what original sin does; it forces us to live in a world of moral ambiguity. Jesus said “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” but the reality is that we’ll not get to that point in this life.

So the response to this terrible reality must be one of humility. Just as in so many other difficult choices wrought with moral ambiguity, we must approach God, offer the seemingly impossible situation up to God, choose and act, and then ask forgiveness in case we’ve chosen and acted wrongly. And then we move on, not flagellating ourselves, but confident that if forgiveness were needed it was granted.

In all events, we learn from today’s lessons that marriage is, at its core, an indissoluble transformation of identity. This is why (and here is the Good News for everyone, whatever his or her marital status) the relationship between Christ and the Church finds marriage as its chief metaphor. Christ’s marriage to the Church is indissoluble because of the eternal nature of Christ’s one sacrifice on the Cross, and a motley agglomeration of men and women have been transformed such that they have become the very body of Christ. Just as the husband and wife become one flesh, so have Christ and his Church.

And it is not only the church catholic which is transformed in her marriage to Christ, but each of her individual members. By virtue of each Christian’s baptism, he or she is given an eternal, indissoluble link with the Savior, a bond which transforms each of us into something he or she was not before. As St. Paul wrote in his second epistle to the Corinthians, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Surely the soul’s bond with Christ is something like marriage, for the Old Testament prophets spoke of idolatry as either adultery or prostitution, and that beautiful biblical book of poems attributed to Solomon, the Song of Songs, depicts the life of faith as a love affair with God.

This is why the mystics spoke so much about spiritual marriage. St. Teresa of Avila said that Christ marries our souls, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, my favorite figure from church history as some of you know, referred to the human soul as “the Bride of the Word”. As strange as it sounds this is a truth in which we can take great comfort. Our souls have a spouse whose very nature is defined by fidelity and unconditional love. We have a partner who cannot but remain faithful despite the devices of our wandering hearts, who cannot but love us in spite of how unlovely we may sometimes think ourselves to be.

This is a great comfort, but it is also a tremendous responsibility. Our relationship with Christ is a primary relationship, just like a relationship to a spouse. In our Baptisms we, or those presenting us when we were infants, made promises just as profound as wedding vows, and in our Confirmations we have reaffirmed those vows, making a mature promise to live by them. We have promised not only an abiding belief in the truths of the Apostle’s Creed, but in the actions which flow from those truths: continuing in prayer and fellowship, perseverance in resisting evil, proclaiming the Gospel in word and example, and serving others in the name of Christ to name but a few.

After church, I would propose that you go back and look at your prayerbooks at the order for Holy Baptism, starting at page 299, and at the order for Confirmation on page 413. Find there your vows. They present a tall order, as it were, and all of us have at some point or another fallen short. But thanks be to God that every time we stumble, the Lord remains faithful, providing forgiveness to the soul he has taken has his spouse, and giving each of us opportunity to hold up our end of the relationship.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.